Helmets: To Wear or Not To Wear?
June 4, 2014 64 Comments
At the risk of setting the internet on fire, this is an article about wearing helmets. We’ve seen a few articles lately that seem to have reignited this timeless debate, and thought we’d jump into the fray.
Before you get all fired up, know a few things
- We believe in the studies that show helmets save lives, and always wear one when we ride
- This author personally had his life saved, or at least avoided having to relearn the alphabet, by wearing a helmet
- We haven’t always been stringent helmet wearers, and spent years going lidless (in fact the day I had my accident was almost a lucky chance, at the last minute I completely randomly decided to grab my helmet for my ride to the grocery store)
- Ultimately the choice whether or not to wear one is up to you
Like politics, helmet wearing tends to be super divisive. The two most vocal camps (though maybe not the most numerous) tend to be:
- Helmets are totally unnecessary for the everyday cyclist, and just make cycling seem more unappealing
- Helmets offer critical protection, and should be mandatory for everyone.
But in the middle are a huge number of riders who just go out and ride their bikes, do what they do, and don’t really get too worked up about stuff like this.
But for the sake of argument, let’s break down the two opposing views:
This camp tends to be more the urban/transportation type of rider, who usually bikes at slower speeds, and in slower moving traffic. To these riders, the helmet is simply an impediment to getting people on bikes. There are some valid arguments to be made here, including studies that show that mandatory helmet laws decrease participation, which actually makes riding more dangerous since there are fewer bikes on the road. Others dislike them because they think it makes cycling seem excessively dangerous, or that they do little to prevent injury. These are also valid points—most cyclists will never need the protection a helmet provides, and in the event of an accident, there really is only so much a helmet can do.
Let’s look at some other positives here:
- Your hair will always look fantastic (unless it’s windy)
- It’s one less thing to worry about buying
- Riding helmetless feels more relaxing
- You won’t get as hot when you ride
Another point that is often cited is that helmet use is relatively uncommon in other industrialized countries, such as in Europe.
When we were in Belgium a few weeks ago, we saw countless people on bicycles in the city going about their commuting and errand-running business without helmets…similar to what we have seen when we’ve visited and ridden in Norway, Denmark, France and Italy (although in all those places we always noticed road and MTB riders wearing helmets). And before you get up in arms about better infrastructure, allow us to say that riding in a city in Europe, even ones with protected bike lanes, can often be more terrifying than riding along a divided highway in the U.S. The roads are tiny, the drivers are unpredictable, and the traffic patterns are utterly incomprehensible. If a car can fit somewhere, then that’s where that car is going—pedestrians, cyclists and legally-binding signage or not.
The point is that people choose to ride bikes, and don’t worry too much about the details.
For others riders, the helmet is a necessary safety precaution, and one that they wouldn’t leave the house without, akin to wearing a seatbelt. Personally, this is the camp we fall into. We freely admit that if you’re struck by one ton of metal at 35mph, there’s only so much some foam and plastic can do, but that simple barrier can, and often does, mean the difference between a traumatic brain injury and a mild headache—as it did for us.
Study after study has shown that helmets can and do reduce the risk of both minor and serious head injury. Many take the view that there is little to be gained and much to be lost by not wearing a helmet. You only get one brain, and the brain is the only part of the body that can’t repair itself, so you better protect it.
The counter argument to the European philosophy is that you have to be realistic. We might all work toward and strive for that hopefully-near future when North American roads and politics will permit two-wheeled travel the way that some European cities do, but in the here-and-now that is simply not the case, and wishing will not make it so. Drivers here are inattentive, in many communities it’s still uncommon to see people using bicycles for transportation or recreation, and in many cities the roads were simply not designed for pedestrian or bicycle travel. Cycling on many American roads can be dangerous, and while you can’t live in fear, it’s best to take reasonable precautions.
Anecdotally, I was struck by a car in Chicago in a 25mph zone. While this might not seem fast, try riding 25mph on your bicycle and it sure seems fast enough. Even at that slow speed, with an oblique strike, it was powerful enough to throw me to the ground, break my collar bone in two places, fracture my scapula, and smash my helmet. At the ER I was told, verbatim, by the doctor holding my destroyed helmet: “if you hadn’t been wearing this, you would probably be upstairs in intensive care and we’d be calling your family”.
We won’t go so far as to advocate for mandatory helmet laws—at some point personal choice and personal responsibility become factors—but to us wearing a helmet is a smart personal choice.
So now that we’ve examined—at least in cursory detail—both sides of the argument, let’s hear your thoughts.